The premium sports-sedan market is generating a lot of competition for the 2008 Audi A4. With a recently updated 3-Series from BMW, a totally revamped C-Class from Mercedes Benz, and respectable contenders from Infiniti, Acura, and Lexus, the current Audi A4 is beginning to look a little out of its depth. The bread-and-butter of Ingolstadt's model lineup is itself due for a complete overhaul later this year. From a technology perspective, we're expecting to see some of the goodies that so impressed us recently in the 2008 Audi A5. We are particularly eager to see the departure of the current-generation A4's ill-thought-out digital-audio interface, which had us pulling our hair out during our week with the car. On the performance front, the turbocharged 2-liter A4 still holds its own against much of the larger-displacement competition, while Audi's legendary Quattro gives it go-cart handling.
Test the tech: iPod track search
The audio options on the Audi A4 are a study in confusion. The standard model comes with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, activated by the CD button on the car's head unit. So far, so good. Sirius Satellite radio is also available on the non-navigation-equipped A4, but is activated by the "AM/FM" button on the head unit. Still with us? Good. If you opt for the navigation system, the CD changer moves to the glove compartment but loses the ability to play MP3-encoded discs. (Don't be confused by the disc slot behind the drop-down navigation screen--that's for the DVD-Rom disc holding map information.) Two SD card slots also sit behind the navigation screen, which are activated by pressing the "SD/MP3" button on the head unit. If you want iPod connectivity with navigation, the glove-box mounted CD changer gives way to a 30-pin iPod connector--often called an "intelligent" iPod connection--which is selected by pressing "CD" button on the head unit. In this configuration, the Audi A4 doesn't have any kind of CD player. If you can work all that out, the next challenge is selecting and playing songs from a connected iPod.
As we found in our review of the 2008 Audi TT, Audi's iPod connector works by reading a connected iPod as a huge CD changer. No information is given on the currently playing track, nor is there a means of selecting individual tracks, artists, or albums. To establish just how much of a challenge this could be, we decided to find a single, predetermined track on our connected 4GB iPod Nano. Before connecting the player, we set our iPod to shuffle and pressed play. The song selected was To the Stars by Vector Lovers. This was the song we would have to find with the player docked in the Audi.
With our iPod connected to the car, we pressed the CD button to select the music on the player as the audio source. The display showed that four out of a possible six CDs were available for music selection. We selected Disc 1 and searched through the tracks, realizing after a few minutes that this "disc" corresponded to a specific playlist on our iPod. Having manually searched through the playlists for our chosen song, we moved to the next available "disc." The second, third, and fourth "discs" also corresponded to individual playlists, although, as there was no labeling of individual songs, we had to scroll through one at a time to make selections of individual songs. Confusingly, each "disc" appeared to contain exactly 99 tracks, even though all of the playlists on our iPod had less than this number of songs. Rather than cutting off the number of available tracks, the Audi system repeats the track list until it gets to 99.
The option labeled Disc 6 was different. Rather than corresponding to a playlist, this category constituted the entire list of tracks on the iPod (on our 4GB player, this added up to about 1,000 songs) arranged in alphabetical order. However, Disc 6 also showed 99 tracks available. To get to tracks 100 and higher, we had to scroll through the entire list, select track 99, then come out of the track-list selection screen, press the CD control button to bring up a virtual track-skip interface, and skip forward one track. This had the effect of taking us through to the second set of 99 tracks when we reverted to the track-list view. To get to our chosen song, we needed to know not only the exact name of the track, but had to also navigate our way through seven lists of 99 tracks to get there. Having repeated the scroll-and-skip procedure three times, we gave up and tuned into FM radio.
In the cabin
Aside from the nightmare of iPod integration, the interior of the 2008 Audi A4 is generally a comfortable place from which to view the world. As we've come to expect from Audi, cabin materials on the A4 are of high quality. The black cowl cover and door coverings are accented neatly with a faux brushed-metal trim across the dash and the doors and the central stack. Our test car came equipped with the S-Line Sport Package, which added leather seating surfaces, an attractively stitched three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel, and some sporty-red "S-Line" logos. Other options on our loaded test car included the heftily priced Convenience Package ($2,100 for Homelink, auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors, power passenger seat, bi-xenon headlights) as well as heated front seats ($450).
As mentioned above, our car came equipped with the navigation package (another $2,100), which gave us the same DVD-based GPS navigation system that we saw on both the 2007 A4 Cabriolet and the 2007 A4 Sedan. The navigation system is programmed using a stack-mounted version of Audi's MMI interface, which consists of a black plastic dial surrounded by four compass buttons corresponding to menu options on the in-dash LCD screen. We have been through our likes and dislikes of the system plenty of times before, but, in a nutshell, we are generally impressed with the quality of maps and direction graphics, but less enamored of the destination-input interface, which requires drivers to enter letters one at a time from a rotary letter dial. When under route guidance, the system provides accurate turn-by-turn directions and a very useful split-screen zoom view of intersections, to ensure you don't miss your turn. We are also impressed with the secondary display mounted in between the tachometer and the speedometer, which provides simple directional information through arrows and road names, and intersection overviews. On the downside, selecting destinations directly from a map requires an unintuitive procedure of clicking the dial multiple times to move the destination along X and Y axes.